Uncle Mortie’s Picnic

Copyright © by Len Holman, 6/11/13


  By now, everyone knows that the U.S. government is—with the very kind assistance of the nation’s data carriers and the ubiquitous social media, The Patriot Act, and secret FISA courts—watching us as we go merrily on our electronic way through cyberspace.  Some of us are outraged, but not too many.  It is for the good of the country we are told.  We have foiled at least one terrorist plot, we are told—but since everything is secret, we don’t know the details, and we never will, so we’ll just have to take our government’s word for it.  The thing is, to me, not the total and arrogant and slimy pretense of protecting America, it’s the question of who is watching and evaluating stuff like Uncle Mortie’s picnic. 

  Obama’s administration and several “experts,” senators and assorted pundits have basically told us that it’s no big deal, that to make America safe, we NEED to do this.  No President wants a major terror attack on his (or her) watch, and no politician wants to go to big-wallet donors for an election campaign with a record of apparent “softness” on terrorism.  This zero-harm policy is not only a fantasy, a child’s wish to have rainbows and fluffy white clouds every day, but unrealistic. So we have a desperate, concentrated effort to monitor an entire electronic web covering not only this country, but the world.  This includes all cell phone calls, social media and search engines, and every track which every person makes—or has ever made—on the internet, including potential terrorist-related events or indications like Uncle Mortie’s picnic. 

  Uncle Mortie has a thing about picnics.  Every summer, he wants the entire clan to gather at the local park and pig out on ribs and hot dogs, soda, and maybe some stronger drink for the adults.  A sunny, hot day for the entire group, a celebration of family and friends and a paean to what American Summer means.  Uncle Mortie always takes a bunch of pictures and videos, and then uploads them to Facebook and Tumblr and tweets incessantly about what a great time everyone is having and how little Billy fell and got a bloody nose, and how his son-in-law got a little too much sun, got a little too thirsty, and drank a bit too much cold beer, AND GOT BOMBED.  Now, somewhere in the bowels of a building which looks like a high-rise apartment building, the algorithm which ferrets out key words comes across Uncle Mortie’s reference to his son-in-law’s inebriation:  the word “bombed.”  Uncle Mortie is tracked down, dragged off to a lonely room, and interrogated relentlessly.  His every call is tracked down and read, his every visit to the Al Jazeera web page (in English) is scrutinized, his Internet wanderings combed through for possible terror-related inferences, and then the really scary stuff begins:  his entire life is unfolded, and interpreted in the context of the possibility that Uncle Mortie is a secret conduit for…SOMETHING. 

  Everyone at his job (if he still has one) is interviewed, his family is questioned (including the now-sober son-in-law), the driver of the bus he takes to work, including all the passengers, and—God forbid!—if Mortie ever stops for a sweet roll and coffee before going into work, a complete and humiliating examination of the man who runs the small bakery where that roll and coffee were purchased, and whose grandparents were born in Afghanistan or Iran or Pakistan, but who was born in Nebraska and has an MBA from UCLA and speaks no Arabic and roots for the Raiders.  After an extensive look at Mortie’s life, it is finally concluded that he is (mostly) innocent and left alone.  No one tells him anything.  Just one day, he notices that there is no black SUV sitting outside his house anymore, and no one follows him when he goes to the corner to buy a paper.  By this time, Mortie has lost his job and cannot get a sweet roll (if he could now afford one) from the guy who lost his business and is now putting baskets of raw fries into a well of hot oil for MacDonald’s. 

  Somewhere, someone (or a lot of someones) spent an inordinate amount of time trying to nail Uncle Mortie to a cross of righteousness and fear.  Multiply all that by the millions upon millions upon millions of tracks we all leave in our daily electronic lives.  We then have is a problem alluded to previously: evaluation.  Who tracks and evaluates all the porn watched (and how would that be done, exactly)?  Who tracks all the numbers of people calling for takeout on a Sunday night in New York City? How much irrelevant and totally unimportant information is gathered and sits, waiting to be analyzed by people with only the context of “looking for terrorist implications” in their minds?   In other words, even if a nascent terror plot is uncovered, will it be after the fact?  There is so much information to be sifted through that no algorithm can possibly do what any human can do effortlessly, immediately do, which is to decide, from content, context, voice intonation, body language, and facial expression—the pragmatics of linguistics.

  Everyday people have foiled almost-plots, like the Times Square smoking bomb, and the shoe bomber on that plane.  The really BIG stuff gets by computers and agency analysts, like 9/11.  Is there a lesson here?  Meanwhile, I predict that Americans will tire of these “revelations” and I further predict that more and more photos and calls and tweets will be monitored.  If someone gets hurts by a pipe bomb made from plans found on the Internet—what then? How long will it be before the government decides to ask (tell?) Google, for instance, that certain search items are now off-limits and must be pulled down?  Uncle Mortie will have learned his lesson and will stand in the unemployment line, wondering what the hell happened.


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